Taking Back the Streets [in NYC] !
- Thanks to Todd Edelman for the heads-up
Taking Back the Streets
(Don't miss: "Congestion pricing is in the news, but urban dreamers have
come up with an array of ways to produce a greener, more walkable city.
Here are 10 mutinous proposals":
<http://www.nytimes.com/pages/nyregion/thecity/index.html> This url is
non-specific, feature will change when next "the city" story appears.)
(note: This article was published before the NY State Legislature
declined support for congestion pricing in Manhattan)
By JEFF BYLES
NEW YORK’S streets are as gritty as the city’s reputation,
traffic-clogged canyons of concrete where New Yorkers, on foot and in
vehicles, jostle and growl, exulting all the while. Stared down a Hummer
lately? Yet there is a growing desire to tame New York’s 5,800 miles of
streets, sidewalks and highways, which constitute the city’s principal
The most highly publicized effort is Mayor Bloomberg's congestion
pricing proposal, which was approved by the City Council on Monday and
as of Friday evening was awaiting a vote by the State Legislature. But
ideas for calming New York’s historically hectic streets go far beyond
congestion pricing. Those ideas, moreover, seem to signal a shift in the
basic thinking of what streets are for.
“For decades, the Department of Transportation’s job has been to move
vehicles as quickly as possible,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, the agency’s
commissioner. “We’re taking a look at it a little bit differently now.
There is a tremendous hunger for what we can do to make it easier for
people to get around, to improve the quality of our streets and plazas,
to make it easier for people to linger.”
These street reformers — planners, architects and urban officials from
around the globe — are questioning the conventional street-curb-sidewalk
motif, challenging the dominance of cars, and devising ways to use
street furniture, plants and even radical new vehicles to transform the
experience of the street.
While they do not necessarily agree on the particulars, the advocates
often share an excitement, a feeling of being present at the creation.
“Let’s go to the next level,” said Ethan Kent, vice president of the
Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit group based in Manhattan, “to
create great streets that really draw out the life of the communities
they’re meant to serve.”
Here are 10 ideas, some modest and some ambitious, some already in place
and others just a gleam in the eye, that the new crop of urban dreamers
“Twenty or thirty years ago we had two different types of streets to
choose from,” said Jan Gehl, an urban planner from Copenhagen who is
advising the Transportation Department on ways to revamp New York’s
public spaces. “One was the traffic street and the other was the
pedestrian mall. Now we have about eight streets to choose from.”
One such street is the woonerf. Pioneered in the Netherlands — the word
roughly translates as “living street” — the woonerf erases the boundary
between sidewalk and street to give pedestrians the same clout as cars.
Elements like traffic lights, stop signs, lane markings and crossing
signals are removed, while the level of the street is raised to the same
height as the sidewalk.
A woonerf, which is surfaced with paving blocks to signal a
pedestrian-priority zone, is, in effect, an outdoor living room, with
furniture to encourage the social use of the street. Surprisingly, it
results in drastically slower traffic, since the woonerf is a
people-first zone and cars enter it more warily. “The idea is that
people shall look each other in the eye and maneuver in respect of each
other,” Mr. Gehl said.
The idea of blocking off streets so children can play rousing games of
skelly and the like dates to at least 1916, when worried city officials
called for shutting 100 streets in congested areas during certain times
of day. “It is only natural that children should want to play,” a
sympathetic police officer told The New York Times that year, “and if
the city refuses to provide playgrounds for them, they are going to play
in the streets.”
Nowadays, the Police Athletic League operates scores of these play
streets during the summer. But some planners suggest making them permanent.
Year-round play zones could extend the sidewalk as a landscaped area, or
as a playground. Traffic may be allowed, but greatly slowed by the
addition of “pinch points” at intersections. Sidewalk “bumps” could be
installed to force cars through a serpentine route and slow them to 10
miles an hour — slow enough to stop for a wayward youngster.
Fewer than 1 percent of New Yorkers bike to work, compared with
one-third of the residents of, say, Copenhagen.
To promote more cycling in New York, Mr. Bloomberg is calling for 504
miles of separated bike paths and 1,296 miles of striped bicycle lanes
citywide by 2030. The separated paths use different kinds of barriers.
The path that already exists in Manhattan on Ninth Avenue from 16th to
23rd Street is cushioned from traffic by a row of parked cars. And in
the proposed design for the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, a 14-mile
route that would stretch from Greenpoint to Bay Ridge, rows of trees
might serve as the divider.
Taking the concept a step further, Portland, Ore., has turned whole
streets into “bicycle boulevards,” diverting motorists at key points but
allowing bicycles and pedestrians to continue on. A not-so-fringe
benefit of these boulevards is higher property values on kid-friendly,
traffic-calmed community streets.
Manhattan’s street grid beautifully accommodates urban chaos within its
rigid frame of right angles. But the layout may also mean too many
streets designed primarily for cars.
“One thing which characterizes New York is all streets are generally the
same concept,” said Mr. Gehl, the Danish planner. “Too many cars in the
middle, and too little space for pedestrians at the edge.”
Under a more varied approach, some streets could be retained as traffic
ways, while others could be transformed into plazas or vest-pocket
parks. Such a mix would dovetail nicely with Mr. Bloomberg’s long-term
goal of turning excess road space into a pedestrian plaza in every
“It’s like the alchemy of transportation,” Commissioner Sadik-Khan said,
citing the new Pearl Street Plaza in Dumbo, Brooklyn, as one of the
first steps in the mayor’s plaza plan. “You’re transforming asphalt into
In 1962, Copenhagen did the unthinkable. It closed its traditional main
street, the Stroget, to cars. That street is now the center of a network
of pedestrian-only streets that is the cynosure of transit dreamers
around the world.
One of those dreamers is George Haikalis, a transportation planner, who
proposes turning a chunk of Manhattan into a “green grid.” The grid, a
30-mile, continuous network of pedestrian-heavy roads like Broadway and
42nd Street, would be car-free and would be lined with seating, trees,
cafes and vendors.
These streets might even have a light-rail line, as they do in a
proposal that Mr. Haikalis has long championed to make 42nd Street a
landscaped pedestrian space. Even the track beds for the train could be
planted with turf.
“We’re going to spend a pile of money widening the sidewalks a little
bit and narrowing the streets a little bit,” Mr. Haikalis said of city
plans to ease pedlock — pedestrian congestion — in Times Square. “Why
not close 42nd Street and create some public space that pedestrians
could really enjoy?”
Mental Speed Bumps
Slower traffic can make for a friendlier city. But slowing traffic can
be done in harsh ways: Speed bumps, traffic circles and the intentional
bottlenecks known as chokers are auto-hostile tactics that do little for
pedestrians. Gentler measures include tweaking the timing of traffic
signals, or using what David Engwicht, an Australian traffic expert,
calls “mental speed bumps”— street-side social activities that slow
drivers without their knowing the foot is on the brake.
A community project called Ninth Avenue Renaissance, for example,
proposes the use of on-street parking spaces on Ninth Avenue in
Manhattan for barbecues and the like, adding a dose of intrigue to the
street scene that will lead motorists to become curious, and slow down.
“New York has these sorts of mental speed bumps,” said Mr. Kent, of the
Project for Public Spaces, “but we’ve slowly degraded them by designing
a more and more frictionless city for fast walkers and fast drivers.”
But street-level friction, he said, is actually good.
In Seattle, greening the street with landscaped areas called swales has
cut the total volume of storm water runoff from the street by 99
percent. Swaled streets also cost 20 percent less to build than
conventional roads. But swaled streets also have aesthetic benefits.
“Birds are going to love this place,” said Michael Singer, an artist who
is part of a team helping the city to reinvent Queens Plaza, in Long
Island City. The plan, for which construction will begin this fall, will
replace soul-sapping asphalt with bird-friendly turf, put layers of
plants around the skeletal infrastructure of the elevated subway lines,
and tie those planted areas into landscaped areas with cisterns to
collect storm water.
To gauge the effect of the plan, Mr. Singer said, imagine avenues lined
with blocklong patches of rustling leaves and singing birds. “All of
that pulls attention away from things you want to put out of sight and
out of mind when you’re in a dense urban area,” he said.
Converting parts of city streets to pedestrian lanes is fine, but
champions of “lanescapes” go further and dress up those spaces in
various imaginative ways. At Columbus Circle, for example, two lanes of
Broadway could be devoted to Jazz at Lincoln Center
with bebop bands spilling into the street. At Times Square, portions of
the streets could accommodate legions of out-of-work actors reliving the
These examples hint at one of the chief strengths of the idea.
“All these places have identities you could bring to the street,” said
Michael Fishman, a planning consultant based in New York. In Hunts Point
in the Bronx, for example, where storm-water runoff pollutes the Bronx
River, the lanes could be wetlands. On Park Avenue? Thumbnail
biographies of robber barons embedded in the asphalt.
Instead of designing cities for cars, why not design cars for a kinder
That’s what researchers at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute
have cooked up: smarter, gentler modes of urban transportation.
“If you think of your average car, it doesn’t have the same smarts as a
horse,” said Mitchell Joachim, a former Media Lab researcher. A horse,
he points out, is unlikely to run off the road, naturally avoids head-on
collisions, and at least comes when you whistle. [and it eats
With the horse in mind, Dr. Joachim, now executive director of a New
York design collaborative called Terreform, has helped conceive of a
lightweight electric car that would sense the presence of other vehicles
and slow down in potentially dangerous areas.
On-board navigation systems would drive people where they wanted to go.
Parking meters, linked to each other and to the vehicles, could signal
an open space. These smart[er] cars would even sense that pothole you
just ran over, and report it to maintenance crews. [do they also sense
people which were just run over, and report it the morgue?]
Because the vehicles could be made of soy-based plastic shells that
could bump into each other without damage, they could move in flocks.
Designers call it “gentle congestion.” Quick braking systems protect
pedestrians, so there is no need for sidewalks, lanes or signals.
More than 10 years ago, Michael Sorkin, who is the director of the
graduate urban design program at City College, proposed a plan to
channel growth and to encourage a lively social scene in East New York,
Brooklyn, a community with large tracts of vacant land.
First, plant a bodacious tree in the middle of an intersection, Mr.
Sorkin said. Landscape the rest into a green berm, radiating coolness
and quiet. “Immediately it calms the traffic in its lee,” said Mr.
Sorkin, who calls his as-yet-untested idea urban acupuncture.
This greened intersection would be linked with vacant lots and
pedestrian paths, creating green zones that force development toward the
center and encourage pedestrians into those unscripted seductions for
which the city is renowned.
“Cities are generators of accidents,” Mr. Sorkin said. “And to the
degree that they are happy accidents, that’s the indicator of a good city.
“It is absolutely critical that the people on foot are at the top of the
hierarchy,” Mr. Sorkin continued. “The alpha mode is the shoe.”
Jeff Byles, an editor at The Architect’s Newspaper, is the author of
“Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition.”